The Salt Path: A Memoir

Finding the strength to move on (from Wales to the South West Coast Path, England; 2012-2013): You “can never have enough memories,” says Raynor Winn, after her world fell apart at fifty. That’s after: thirty-two years married to her beloved Moth; raising two children now away at college; spending twenty years making their Welsh farm home their own, the land and animals precious to them; losing the source of their income; wiping out their bank account after an investment went sour, fighting a three-year legal battle that failed on a technicality, losing it all.

Catastrophic loss, yet not as earth-shattering as being told the very next day Moth’s shoulder pain and stiffness was due to a rare, progressive neurological disease – corticobasal degeneration, symptoms Parkinson’s-like. If he was lucky and took it easy, maybe he had two years left to live.

After all that gut-punching, would you still be able to say, like the author does, “I chose hope”? 

The couple’s response, coupled with soul-searching prose and vivid nature writing, turned into this moving debut, The Salt Path: A Memoir.

Be prepared to like this devastated couple a lot. For the author’s piercing voice pleading “don’t take him, you can’t take him. He’s everything, he’s all of it, all of me.” For Moth’s generosity, the kind of person who’d take the shirt off his back, because he did. (Gave away their last piece of fudge and coins to someone he felt worse off than he.) For this couple’s “passion that didn’t die,” a gift that together gave them the strength to do something wild and inconceivable. The “wild was never something to fear or hide from. It was my safe place, the thing I ran to, says the “farmer and farmer’s daughter” writer.

If only she was writing fiction. Too cruel to make up. So you’ll read wishing the book doesn’t end. We don’t want to know Moth’s final verdict. 

Raynor Winn “desperately needed a map, something to show me the way,” so in an act of desperation she came up with an audacious idea, inspired by another British nature writer’s guidebook – Paddy Dillon’s Five Hundred Mile Walkies – to trek 630 miles along one of the most spectacular nature walks in all of walkable England, a top ten walking path in the world: the South West Coast Path.

It traverses the windswept, rocky North Devon and North Cornwall coasts along the westerly Atlantic Ocean side of Britain headed south, until landing at Land’s End, the furthest point west, where the trail turns eastward, gets physically less strenuous and more populated, this being the southern English Channel side.

Dillon made it sound so much easier than it was; his pace far outpaced theirs. In fact, this extreme endurance journey is said to equal climbing Mount Everest four times! As long as the Winns could keep moving, they’d escape what-to-do-next realities. Motivation the author needed more, it seems, than Moth. 

Putting themselves in Mother Nature’s hands without creature comforts and enough money called for enormous stamina, positivity, coping skills. “Wild camping” where the weather is often brutal and suddenly, dramatically changes is a formidable undertaking. The winds roared even when it wasn’t raining or pouring so hard it hurt. Backpacks, clothes, tent, sleeping bags all soaked, damp, or misted wet, the worst conditions for Moth whose body didn’t take kindly to the cold and overexertion. Add in funds drained so low they couldn’t afford top-of-the-line outdoor equipment, and having to lug around seventeen pounds of whittled-down essentials on Moth’s already aching back.

The two set off on the path with 50 pounds (roughly 65 dollars exchanged today) to their name, which had to stretch until Moth’s monthly disability check came due, amounting to just 30 pounds. Imagine sustaining yourself through “extreme physio” on noodles, rice, candy (“fudge for breakfast, fudge for lunch, and it was looking like fudge for dinner”), occasionally a little tuna. Starving or when the funds finally came through, splurging on Britain’s famous chips, pasties, ice cream when the temperature was unexpectedly scorching, sheltering in cafes for hours on end, sharing a free cup of hot water and a lonely tea bag. But first they had to reach a village, come out of the remoteness, find a bank. For months and months.

Once, the coveted pasty was free too. Normally tossed out at day’s end but a disgruntled restaurant employee they bumped into treated them to a much- appreciated meal not out kindness but anger at a boss. No food banks to help others also having hard times? Restaurants in America alone waste 63 million tons of food a year by some accounts. 

Another social issue, another cloud that hung over them, making a larger statement about what it means to be homeless, in rural areas. A phenomenon not well-known even to researchers. Difficult to quantify, difficult to identify, not just in England but here at home. 

They call them the “hidden homeless”. Homelessness is typically associated with cities as it’s out in the open on streets, benches, under overpasses. Yet in Britain alone, data show a 40% increase in rural homelessness over a recent six-year period. A US report confirms homelessness in rural America is also rising. A problem, apparently, not on our radar like the urban plight.

One might assume a less judgmental attitude toward those homeless communing in Nature. The truth is no matter where you are people look down on the homeless – as they did toward the Winns. Not everyone, but considering how few encounters over hundreds of miles (mostly dog walkers) too many did. Strangers labeled them “tramps,” stereotyping one or both as afflicted with addiction and/or mental illness, rather than a series of unfortunate events or a single crushing defeat. 

Calling themselves “edgelanders,” this is a story of literally walking and living on the edge. Even finding a flat, comfortable place to pitch a tent (the western coast covered with coarse heather and gorse) was challenging, plus they had to stay out of sight of a possible passerby since wild camping is “technically illegal in England and Wales.” 

By now you’re wondering what the South West Coast Path is like. Narrow, it runs up and down sweeping cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to beaches, coves, fishing villages. Breathtaking landscapes, diverse ecosystems, marshes, wetlands, “salt-burned” trees, sand dunes, ancient geology. Touristy Cornish villages disorienting. Here are some images to give you a sense:

Geof Sheppard via Wikimedia Commons
Raimond Spekking via Wikimedia Commons

Roger Cornfoot via Geograph

neiljs via Flickr

The author brought a journal, the only way she could have captured the scenery, obstacles, details, emotions as rawly and clearly.

The most poignant moment happens at the beginning, when the author has to say goodbye to her nineteen-year-old sheep, Smotyn. No one would want this aged sheep; somehow she sensed that. The author discovered her “in her favorite spot under the beech trees, her head laid out on the grass as if she were sleeping. She knew. She knew she couldn’t leave her field, her place, and had simply died.” That’s when Winn breaks down, when we first feel the enormity of her loss. Animals have a unique way of communicating what we cannot bear to.

Soon after, the author saw a way to give them a purpose. Follow the path, see how far they could get, how far it would take them. This “wasn’t just about being homeless; it was about achieving something.”

Which they did, expressed in a beautiful message inscribed on a bench in Cornwall: “Meet me there, where the sea meets the sky. Lost but finally free.”

That tells you all you really need to know about the ending.


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A Woman Is No Man

Refusing to be silenced (Brooklyn 2008; Palestine to Brooklyn 1990s backstories): Etaf Rum is a brave writer. She says as much in a Dear Reader note in an advanced reader copy and the preface to her debut novel, A Woman is No Man, confiding she was “constantly swallowed by fear” writing it, yet she broke a “culture of silence.” 

She must be brave to create a dark plot about arranged marriages in strict, conservative Arab families that isolates Palestinian women with emotional and physical abuse, risking perpetuating negative stereotypes about Rum’s own immigrant community at a time when hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiments are sharply on the rise in America and globally. “Surely I’ll only upset people and fuel further discrimination already stereotyped by a single story. It would be the ultimate shame,” Rum says. Yet she dares doing so anyway.

Clearly, something else is afoot. Presumably something the author felt morally compelled to write, saying:

“You’ve never heard this story before. No matter how many books you’ve read, how many tales you know, believe me: no one has ever told you a story like this one.” 

Her compelling novel is set in Brooklyn, where Rum was born and lives, perhaps in the same Bay Ridge multicultural community her characters dwell. Bay Ridge is depicted as close-knit. “It was as if all the Arabs in Brooklyn stood hand in hand, from Bay Ridge all the way up to Atlantic Avenue, and shared everything, from one ear to the next. There were no secrets between them.” So why reveal secrets, whether there’s any truth to them or well-fictionalized we perceive these truths to be real? Rum’s confidences about her fears lead us to believe she is exposing truths meant to stay behind closed doors. Why raise the stakes of dishonoring her culture, in which honor and “reputation is everything”?

Rum’s objective, she says, is to highlight the “strength and resiliency” of Arab women. You may see this in one or more of her four main female characters. On the other hand, you may feel overwhelmed by the weakest one, Isra, so battered by loneliness, despair, identity loss, and relentless physical assault she descends into such “paralyzing shame” she becomes ashamed of even existing. Isra endures over the years, but the cost is a shell of a human being, “an empty heart.” 

Will the novel be seen as an act of betrayal? Or, a contemporary woman’s activism to be the voice for the “voicelessness [that] is the condition of my gender”? Will the reader be inspired by defiant characters, or pained by the obedient ones?

Book clubs have plenty to talk about as the novel raises contentious cultural issues in a multilayered, generational approach. 

Four Palestinian women – the two oldest are immigrants, the two younger born in America – show how past cultural traditions keep repeating (the older generations) while their children resist and defy the limits placed on them simply because they’re female. Whose voice will the reader hear? The older ones who believe “obedience is the only path to love”? The younger ones struggling to find “the courage to stand up for yourself, even if you’re standing alone”?

The older women immigrated to Brooklyn from two cities in the West Bank of Palestine, disputed territory in the Israeli-Palestine Peace process.

Their storylines are outlined below, from oldest to youngest:

1. Fareeda: came to the US from a Palestinian refugee camp. Survived poverty, married off in her teens, mother of three sons and a daughter (see Sarah below.) Her influence intensifies as the plot does. She clings to a narrow view of women restricted to the home, that a daughter’s sole purpose is to cook, clean, serve, and become a mother who will give birth to boys; girls are a disgrace, a burden, a curse – the jinn. Men bear burdens too, financially obligated to support their family. Adam, her eldest, bears the brunt, reflecting immigrants “working like dogs,” which plays out destructively when he goes to Palestine and brings home eighteen-year-old Isra through another arranged-for-marriage. It’s their marriage, their sad, abusive story, that overpowers the others. 

2. Isra: unhappy when we meet her at 17. Forced to leave her homeland, her parents, and her pastoral home overlooking fig and olive trees. Raised by a traditional mother who subscribed to the same beliefs about women as Fareeda; a mother who expressed no love or warmth, also like Fareeda. Isra grabs our hearts, so quiet and submissive all she can do is hope that in the land of the free she’ll find love and freedom. Not so when she keeps giving birth to daughters – four in all. She’s the victim of Adam’s anger, angst, exhaustion. Sometimes he unexpectedly hits her over the slightest thing; other times Isra knows when he’s coming for her. 

3. Sarah: Fareeda’s only daughter. Supposedly married off but no one has heard from her. She befriended Isra when she and Adam came to live under Fareeda’s dark roof, in a depressing basement.

4. Deya: Isra’s oldest daughter, the youngest of the four. It’s her melancholy/distraught/confused/questioning narrator’s voice we hear. Yet it’s Isra’s voice from the past that haunts the novel, haunting Deya too. She misses her mother who died when she was eight. That’s ten years ago by the time she tells us these tangled stories. Told her parents died in a car accident, Deya yearns to know more about Isra so she can remember her beyond recalling how unhappy she seemed. If only Fareeda would tell her something perhaps she wouldn’t feel so abandoned and unloved. Fareeda’s silence turns the novel into a mystery as we become suspicious of what really happened to Isra.

Rum’s prose has a gentle rhythm to it. But Isra’s tale, and the sequestered world of these women, isn’t gentle at all. 

One wonderful exception: books are life-savers for these women (except Fareeda). Books are literally the only source of their happiness, dreams, and sense of love. Through literature they “dreamed of bigger things – of not being forced to confirm to conventions, of adventure, and most of all love.” But reading is a major feat, acquiring books and then having to hide them. 

Deya’s world is insular, yet she fights to change it. She wants to go to college, refuses Fareeda’s constant attempts to marry her off. (Note: while Isra didn’t have any choice about Adam, today’s Deya does, though her life made miserable by Fareeda.) Deya’s story is an uphill battle to challenge stereotypes, aware there are other “Arab families who firmly believe in educating their women.’’ 

Deya is confused though. She’s taught in her Islamic studies class women are meant to be respected. But she (and her female classmates) can’t understand her teacher when he asserts “heaven lies under a mother’s feet.” They can’t even answer his question: What is the role of women in their society today?

Rum’s answer: it’s changing. But in order for women to feel they belong in this country they need to “belong to ourselves first,” otherwise, “it’s hard to belong anywhere.”

It seems fair to say belongingness is complicated to navigate for most immigrants. For these women (except Fareeda), it’s made tougher because they feel unwanted in their own home.

Inclusion, self-determination, and freedom are not just messages for Palestinian-American women, but for women everywhere struggling to be heard.


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The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

Extreme adventure that reads like unimaginable fiction (Washington, Inside Passage and Arctic Alaska, Canadian Territories; six months 2012): If a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the video Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell shot during their six-month, mind-boggling expedition covering 4,000 miles of stunning and death-defying landscapes in the northernmost reaches of North America – the subject of this thrilling and beautifully written memoir:

If you cannot imagine adventuring through the Inside Passage of southern Alaska to the Arctic Circle, and doing so entirely with your own “muscles” (travel by an “expedition-style rowboat” Pat built, an inflatable packraft, skis, hiking), in some of the most “bear-dense landscapes on earth” (no gun, just bear spray), amidst “hurricane-force winds,” avalanche dangers, glaciers, snow-covered boulders, mud like quicksand, in temperatures that plunged as low as negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit, across remote backcountry few (if any) humans live, then reading The Sun is a Compass is like watching a National Geographic Special with eye-popping wows.

You’ll also find yourself thinking, like the author writes in her planning notes, “Is this crazy?” The answer is an unequivocal yes; this wild journey undertaken in 2012 was CRAZY! Maybe not quite that absolute for a couple cognizant that “wilderness has become the silent partner in our marriage.”

The author has a way with words that brings awesome wilderness to our doorsteps. Coupled with amazing courage, endurance, persistence, and risk-taking, this is an amazing story of recognizing “certain things in life don’t offer second chances.”

How two extreme adventurers achieved what they’d set out to do (with four months of planning that wasn’t enough), prepared for, experienced, and survived is the stuff of legends. In fact, I googled to see if they’d received any kind of explorer award, surprised not to find any. The memoir should attract wide attention to compensate for that, though it seems highly unlikely these adventurers care much about that. They are the real deal.

Honestly, I don’t know which aspect of their journey stands out the most. I’ll mention some, let you decide.

The author, who submitted her doctoral thesis the night before they set off, is a wildlife biologist specializing in ornithology. Surely her knowledge enriched what the couple saw and felt. Being able to identify a long list of birds acclimated to frigid climates and birds in the midst of the miracle of migration – birds with “remarkable feats of memory and problem-solving” – added immeasurably. So many birds, which you’ll find listed in a detailed index. Warblers, godwits, chickadees, kittiwakes, trogons, gulls, goshawks, guillemots, gyrfalcons, plovers, tussocks, and many more. Enough to satisfy a birder’s life list! But the purpose of spotting them and telling us a little about them is meant to highlight moments “filled with “wonder.” The bird image that sticks with me is the time they came upon a single “trumpeter swan taking a bath” in a glacial lake at five thousand foot elevation.

Seeing these birds in their natural habitats brought the author closer to the field work she’s passionate about, not the academic research she’s dispassionate about – one reason among several this journey was so important to her.

Van Hemert was thirty-three when she and her husband made this expedition, a fork-in-the-road time in their personal and professional lives, expecting it would clarify decision-making especially for the author who “needed a crash course outdoors to remind myself that life is not merely a tally of days, that what really matters cannot be quantified.”

Pat’s path, on the other hand, seemed somewhat determined. A builder of things, he ended up founding an Alaskan company that custom-designs homes for unforgiving climates. The author, who tends to worry compared to her unusually optimistic husband, currently works at the US Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska after much soul-searching.

Van Hemert tells her story when she was at a vulnerable stage in life, unsure of her career direction and motherhood (her sister gave birth shortly after the expedition began), concerned, rightfully so, as to how a child would fit into/constrain extreme adventuring. But family is precious to her; she poignantly stresses about her active father’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The trip may be off-the-charts unknowable to most of us, but the personal conflicts and worries are awfully familiar.

While Pat’s arrival in Alaska came via upstate New York (he content to “live in the woods”), the author was raised in Alaska by highly supportive parents who loved and encouraged the outdoors. Van Hemert is devoted to them too, touched they’d think nothing of driving 1,000 miles north to deliver and exchange supplies. Care packages always included much-needed food that was never enough and, except for calorie-laden treats they devoured on the spot, quite dissatisfying (dehydrated and dry food) to reduce the heavy loads strapped on their backs. Imagine how many calories expended in a day! Many times nourishment ran seriously low, one time the author so starved she could barely move. A couple of times the two were saved by “Arctic hospitality,” generous strangers they met in sparsely populated, remote villages or tiny outposts.

While the birds are lovely to read about, it’s the bears that give most pause. They encountered 47 bears; only one was so aggressive they’re lucky to be alive.

Perhaps more impressive was witnessing herds of porcupine caribou crossing waters, “one of the last great migrations of large mammals on earth.”

Dean Biggins (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), via Wikimedia Commons

Also unforgettable was the first 1,200 miles of their trip paddling in over-sized, sleek yet 100-pound, 18-foot rowboats. They were sailors, kayakers, canoers used to staying close to each other; these oars were too long to permit that. Sometimes they rowed without seeing the other – daunting aloneness when dealt with unpredictable, fiercely raging Spring weather when they left from Bellingham, Washington. We’re talking six foot waves, “rowing in the dark through the biggest tide of the decade.”

Those images bring to mind another indelible scene: paddling amongst 40-ton humpback whales breeching.

And yet, when a goat falls off a mountain and recovers gracefully, reminding the author to relish not fear the beauty engulfing them, that graceful goat serves as a symbol of wondrous, fleeting moments. That some of “the most precious things in life are those that don’t last forever.”

Above all those vivid scenes, the climate change message we mustn’t forget. Given the threat to endangered species the Trump Administration endorses, so utterly contrary to grave scientific global warming predictions, observing musk oxen return to the Arctic having vanished after 90,000 years on earth is an encouraging sign that maybe it’s not too late, yet.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons

The “entire Arctic Marine ecosystem is in peril,” the author writes, evidenced by paddling alongside gigantic ice floes broken off from what used to be “land of persistent ice,” and discovering the relics of creatures lost to the climate’s warming. “Bleached white bones are everywhere as if an entire museum collection had been emptied onto the beach.” The prose ought to alarm. Species are endangered because our environment is endangered.

You don’t have to go to such extremes traveling to the “land of extremes” to believe this. (Colorful, glossy photographs tucked inside show how extreme. The very last picture is a spoiler, so suggest you finish then peruse.) Still, we should applaud two brave people who went to extremes, now warning those who’ve gone to extremes to deny climate change is upon us.


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The DNA of You and Me 2

Double pressures – Genetics research and romance in a lab (Manhattan, contemporary times): Plenty of fiction evokes a strong sense of time and place, but we don’t often come across fiction strongly-scented about our sense of smell. Andrea Rothman is perfect for dreaming up a story about genetics researchers seeking the genes responsible for olfaction because she once was one.

Richman’s debut novel is as fresh and smart as the cutting-edge research going on at a genetics lab where she used to work (The Rockefeller University). Her invented lab – American University of Science Research (AUSR) – and the real one are located along Manhattan’s East River, where the city is developing a major Life Sciences Corridor. The author was a postdoctoral fellow researching the “oddball” set of genes responsible for our sense of smell – the scientific plot of The DNA of You and Me. There’s some other DNA also strongly-flavoring the prose involving the chemistry of romance between two geneticists – Emily and Aeden.

For a novel with a scientific theme, fiction readers need a writer who can disarm non-scientists to make the science accessible. We also need a hook we can all relate to by a writer who can charm us with an engaging plot and pleasing prose. Richman proves she has a literary knack for doing both, translating technical science into layman’s terms ever so gently while entangling it with provocative prose on contemporary issues. Taken together, the novel achieves a double effect: gaining a better appreciation of the importance of a sense we may take for granted, and stirring us to think about what matters most to us in life in terms of our goals, values, and ethical principles.

Double Helix via Pixabay

The double helix is a term that refers to the shape of DNA, defined as two strands likened to twisted ladders or staircases. The novel is about the tension between two strands – professional versus personal – both of which twist and turn. This twisting is seen in the sketches of DNA twisted ladders that introduce the novel’s five parts.

This image doesn’t do justice to the complexity of what’s involved in identifying “how the olfactory nerves, hundreds of thousands possessing different odorant receptor types, ultimately reached their targets, allowing us to smell.” The plot and characters center around trying to figure out how that complicated genetics and neuroscience works.

Emily met Justin at a conference in Chicago, where she grew up and was finishing her graduate studies, having already distinguished herself with science journal worthy publication of her clinical cancer findings. Boldly she told him she was “born to” discover the rare olfactory genes. So at twenty-eight he hired her to do just that. Once on board, Justin (forty) saw his younger self: “so single-minded and ambitious, so alone.”

Justin’s judgment of Emily was spot-on. It drives the plot and the serious questions raised. Can a woman like Emily, with her set-in-stone career aspirations and asocial personality (“human company is overrated”) ever be happy with anyone? Is she fated to be alone? What if someone comes along and could be the right person for her, would she be willing to compromise her single-minded professional dedication? How deeply conflicted and risky would that decision be, when Emily cannot even “figure out how to be happy”? Friendless all her life, she really doesn’t know “there’s a purpose to being around other people.” Richman has created a character as odd as the mysterious genes.

Enter Aeden, a postdoctoral fellow Emily meets on day one of her new job, the same day she’s landed in New York. “Men rarely noticed me,” she says, though her fiery red hair would seem to negate that perception. In fact, Aeden does notice her but for the wrong reason.

Aiden begrudges her because he (and lab partner Allegra) have been working for three years on a project similar to the one Justin hired her for. They knew this but Justin never told Emily. Was this ethical, pitting colleagues against each other? Emily tells Justin if he’d told her she never would have accepted the job. Emily knows something about the fierce competition in science labs.

In weighing this ethical question (in a novel that evokes many), we need to factor in that Aeden and Allegra are using traditional lab techniques while Emily is using computers to analyze genetics, a field known as bioinformatics. Justin still should have told her, don’t you think? But all Justin cares about is the race to the top.

Emily and Aeden get off to a very bad start and stay entrenched for a long time. Between Emily’s anti-social personality, Aeden’s resentfulness, and their mutual intensity they’re an unlikely pair. Theirs is a slow-to-develop, difficult relationship analogous to the slow pace of complex science research. The novel, though, moves easily, briskly.

Science tells us something about human beings so look for double meanings. Start with the novel’s cleverly titled five parts: Part 1, The Wrong Genes, cluing us in on failed research and mismatched colleagues. Part II, A Bridge, applies to DNA structure as well as finding a bridge to allow any relationship to foster between the two central characters. Part III, Recombination, is a genetics term and a way to describe the changing nature of Emily’s and Aeden’s relationship. Part IV, Chimera, also from genetics, describes Emily’s romantic crossroads. Fantasy or not?

Emily spent her childhood indoors due to an allergy to the smell of grass, shutting herself off from people, setting a lonely pattern for her future. Her interest in olfactory research was inspired by an allergic condition, but it was also influenced by her father’s work in a chemistry lab.

Actually, there’s a more profound origin for Emily’s solitary preferences despite her saying “for no apparent reason, I didn’t like people very much, and did not care to be around them.” Abandoned by her mother when she was a baby, it’s no wonder she doesn’t trust people and has only been attached to the father who raised her on his own. When the novel opens, he’s already passed away.

No wonder too that Emily finds comfort in an hermetically sealed profession, enabling and rewarding her for cutting herself off from the outside world. Occasionally, she steps out and into it. When she does, nature fills the prose, giving Emily and us a jolt as to what it might feel like cooped up in a lab for crazy long hours, day and/or night. Experiments are timed; ambition has no time limits.

The prose also exudes smells, as Emily is hypersensitive to them. Examples include the “buttery odor” of shampoo, “nicotine on his breath,” the “sea-breeze odor of his T-shirt,” the “rotting fish” odor of a “neuron-staining solution,” and the “mild stench” of the East River. All make the point that smells are tied to memories, good and bad.

Emily is 40 when Chapter 1 opens, looking back on 12 years earlier when she worked in Justin’s lab. So while we think we know the ending told in the early pages – she receives the prestigious Lasker award for her “contribution to neuroscience” – as we get into her backstory we realize we have no idea until the end whether she and Aeden reach the target of coming together, mirroring the quest to reaching the targets to explain how we smell.

Emily is an unusual woman whose scent will linger.


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All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf 4

An elegant memoir of the unbreakable bond between a daughter and her father using literary scholarship (Rhode Island, Boston, also England, Australia; roughly 1980s to present-day): There are many ways to describe this heartbreaker of a memoir about an only child who loses her beloved yet enigmatic, alcoholic father.

Katharine Smyth misses her father terribly, yearns to better understand him, which means reconciling conflicted memories of him. She wants to see him in the best light – Light a constant thread – not through a child’s adoring eyes (“a child [who] danced on the top of his feet”), but as an adult often disappointed and disgusted by his “recklessness.”

Smyth’s father remains nameless until the acknowledgements, a nod to the mystery of him. He died at 55 to cancer, hastened (if not brought on) by self-destructive behaviors. Truth is, and Smyth writes candidly, she’d been losing him many years before.

How can someone go from “the most gentle and loving being” to an unrecognizable “brutish stranger”? Be so “anti-life” yet “hold such life within”? What happened to the man who seemed happy when they sailed and swam together? Once so energetic, so full of life, then so full of “exhaustion and sourness.” If, as the author concludes, he was “born an alcoholic,” was he ever truly happy? Happy enough? What was the meaning of his life?

Smyth has been struggling with these complicated questions for at least the past ten years, which is how long she says she’s been writing about him. Seems much longer, going back to when she was eleven when she started a diary. Even with all those years of reflections, her impressions of him keep shape-shifting. Understandable, as he was complex, a nasty drunk, and her mother was private and distant, silent and absent during all those troubling years.

This testament to a daughter’s unbreakable attachment to and love for her father is profound. Her teenage years were emotional roller coasters as she (and her mother) walked on eggshells, so erratic and unpredictable was he. Yet she, not her mother, was his primary caretaker (minus the years she was sent to boarding school, a godsend). Not a slight matter as her father underwent frequent cancer treatments, sometimes every three months, in and out of hospitals. When the disease spread, his last hospitalization was lengthy, torturous. “How can people be asked to endure this?” asks the daughter who never left her father’s side.

Smyth seeks existential answers from Virginia Woolf, her literary idol, who counsels “life is infinitely beautiful yet repulsive.” As the subtitle suggests, the author applies Woolf’s early 20th century inner thoughts (from letters, essays, diaries) and fiction to 21st century loneliness and grief to enlighten her. Perhaps Woolf is right: you can never truly know someone. But the beautiful thing about the author’s impressive effort is not wanting to accept the darker view. In elegant prose, she strives to find the light.

Where better than in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which as far as the author is concerned “tells the story of everything.” This is the book she holds dear above all books. (“Perhaps there is one book for every life.”) Even if you haven’t read it or remember it, the author shows how relatable it is to her life starting with a favored parent (the mother, Mrs. Ramsey) at the heart of a family and a marriage.

Woolf spent her childhood in a house by the sea and the light (“the purest ecstasy I can conceive”) in Cornwall, England with a view of the Godrevy Lighthouse, where she summered as a child. (Fictionally, she moved the house, sea, and light to the Isle of Skye in Scotland.)

Godrevy lighthouse from St. Ives
Photo by Steve Fareham via Geograph

Virginia Woolf’s real and fictionalized homes remind the author of an 1890s house with a waterfront deck in Rhode Island she spent happy summers. The Cornwall home was “the most important of all memories,” wrote Woolf. True for Smyth and once upon a time for her father.

The author knows Virginia Woolf intimately; she’s the subject of her master’s thesis. (Her father was also from England; the author studied at Oxford and fondly recollects those days.) Other Woolf writings (and biographer analyses) are sometimes blended in, all often within the same paragraph. Stylistically, the memoir reflects some of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness modernism, including use of Woolf’s bracketed parenthetical thoughts. So there’s plenty of literary food for thought.

We can also examine the memoir psychologically, as this is a sad story about what happens to a person’s psyche when they become unemployed and it drags on and on. The author’s father never really made a comeback from a creatively satisfying architectural career (her mother also an architect) when he lost that job to the recession in the ‘80s. A tragic example of how job loss can spiral downward triggering heavy, constant drinking (and smoking).

Another psychological factor is the extent to which the “unique psychology of sickness” (Woolf’s prophetic words, having committed suicide) fueled her father’s depression and alcoholism, a toxic mix coupled with the psychological damage caused by joblessness.

Alcoholism affects the whole family. The memoir, then, is a window into the perniciousness of alcoholism victimizing a family, eating away at a marriage. (Though theirs didn’t end in divorce, a topic of consternation since the author’s marriage dissolved after four years.). The family goes on, but not without considerable sacrifices. “Marriage is a loss, a sacrifice of self and its expression,” says the author reflecting Woolf’s feminism.

All the Lives We Ever Lived raises many provocative issues, including a different perspective to consider only children other than the typical stereotype of spoiled brats.

The question of whether a child loves their father or mother more comes up. Let’s accept the question is a universal one owing to human nature and circumstances. The question that’s not universal is why an only child might have a more intense obsession for one parent over another? Adoration so acute and vital it becomes wrapped up in a fear life will become unbearable when that parent dies.

Only children like the author may carry a melancholy “sense of envy” of larger families, a kind of grief on its own for not being part of the “happy chaos of siblings” as seen in Woolf’s Ramsey family. Feelings of existential longing are practical too: not having a sister or a brother to comfort you, especially when you have to carry the burden of a dysfunctional family. Fiction, then, is not just for entertainment, escape, but to gain insight into ourselves by letting us inside how others live, act, and think.

The author also does us a service when she’s hit by how different her emotions are from societal expectations of grieving. She describes grief as “dreaminess,” “alienation,” “fogginess,” “formlessness.” But what she discovers is that for her it’s not the non-stop crying and falling-apart she dreaded for so many precious years.

Most remarkable is the lack of bitterness in the prose. Perhaps, in part, because the author’s idol shunned “sentimentality.” But we need to let Smyth shine here all on her own, admire her optimism to find her father’s lost light – “that astonishing light” – not just for the memory of him but for herself.

Tenderly and compassionately the author writes about wildlife by the water – great blue herons and swan egrets and creatures of the sea like starfish, oysters, horseshoe crabs. Poignantly observing species disappearing year after year, the prose cries out on climate change and how much Nature nourishes our well-being.

Ironically, in writing to better know her father, the author found a brighter light for her mother, for whom she dedicates her eloquent memoir to.


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